After some great scenery in Ninh Binh, or “Halong Bay on Land”, we were ready to see one of Vietnam’s most famous sites – Halong Bay. We’d heard that the best place to enjoy the bay from was the largest island, Cat Ba Island. It was supposed to be easy to book a boat cruise to Halong and Lan Ha Bay from there, so that was our plan!
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is just off the coast of Hai Phong, a few hours drive from Hanoi. A short, fast ferry ride is the easiest way to get to the island. From Ninh Binh we booked a bus, which would drop us at the fast ferry, and then another bus would take us to Cat Ba Town. The whole route cost us roughly $15, which was one of the more expensive bus options we had during our time in Vietnam. The bus ride to the ferry took almost 4 hours, the fast boat another hour, and the last bus to Cat Ba town took nearly 45 minutes. Cat Ba town isn’t very big, with a small harbor, a good number of hotels lined up at the seafront, and multiple new hotels under construction. At the time of our visit, we found our accommodation to be one of the cheapest we had so far in the country – we ended up paying $6 per night for an en suite room with a balcony overlooking the ocean.
Although there seemed to be a decent amount of tourists on Cat Ba Island, most of them seemed to be backpackers or low budget tourists, as the only way to get to the island at the moment is by ferry. The owner of our hotel informed us that a bridge to Cat Ba Island is being built and will be finished some time in 2017, so expect a large influx of package tourists to start visiting. Right next to Cat Ba Town are a few small beaches, with free parking. We ended up at Cat Co 1, where a set of stairs led us down from a cliff to a small, sandy beach. There were a few people around laying on the beach and swimming in the water, but it wasn’t busy at all.
Cat Co 1, one of the beautiful beaches next to Cat Ba Town.
Cat Ba National Park
Before heading out on a boat cruise to Halong Bay for a few days, we decided to explore Cat Ba Island. We rented a scooter and drove to Cat Ba National Park. The national park is home to one of the most endangered primates in the world – the Golden Headed Langur or Cat Ba Langur. Approximately 50 are left in the wild, and they only live on Cat Ba Island. We arrived at the park and paid roughly $2 each to enter and hike up to Ngu Lam Peak, which has great views over Cat Ba Island. The hike is pretty straightforward and signposted all the way. It leads up stairs under the cover of the forest for about 30 minutes before getting to the last section of the path, which is more a scramble up jagged rocks. The first lookout with a small roof for cover rewarded us with stunning views over the green karst hills of Cat Ba Island in every direction. A short 10 minute hike to the highest point reveals a full 360 degree panorama of the island.
We enjoyed the beautiful views for a while and then headed back down to the entry of the park again. On our way down we came across tons of hikers on their way up to the lookout. We had gone relatively early in the morning and luckily there were only a few other people at the lookout when we arrived. Day trips and multi-day cruises from Hanoi often stop at Cat Ba in the late morning or early afternoon, so visiting earlier will likely keep you away from the crowds. There is no reason we could see to hire a guide for the short hike up Ngu Lam, however others we saw as we left had guides with them.
There is also an 18km long hike (one way) through the national park, which leads to a small harbor. b Once you reach the end you can hire a boat to bring you back to Cat Ba Town. It’s possible to do the hike without a guide, but a boat would need to be arranged beforehand (there are no boats waiting at the dock).
After the national park, we drove back towards Cat Ba Town and stopped at Hospital Cave. Hospital Cave was a secret bombproof hospital during the war that had been built inside a cave. It also served as a hideout for the Viet Cong. We parked our scooter at a small restaurant opposite the cave entrance and paid the entrance fee of $2 per person. We followed a short path and a set of stairs up to the entrance of the cave, where a guy sitting beside some mannequins dressed up in military uniforms was checking tickets. Tours of the cave are offered for whatever price you see fit, and usually last 10 minutes or so. We decided to just wander around on our own and headed into the hospital through an old, rusty, heavy steel door.
The hospital is made up of three levels: the first is rooms built out of concrete, the second and third being natural cave formations with concrete floors and some walls. We looked around the first level for a while and peeked into the numerous rooms of different sizes, most of which were empty. An underground well and old barracks were among the empty rooms on the first floor. The second floor had a concrete floor and the cave made up the walls and ceiling. A staircase lead up to the third floor, unfortunately access was forbidden when we visited because it was deemed unsafe. It only took us a short 15 minutes to explore the Hospital Cave before we exited at the other end of the cave, and was an interesting side trip.
Driving around the island to admire the views was a bit less inspiring than we had hoped. The best views seem to be on the east and south of the island, however we drove the west coast where new roads are being built in preparation for the completion of the bridge. The west side was mostly industrial shipping, which is a bit less scenic than the beautiful peaks of the national park and the islands to the east.
Halong Bay and Lan Han Bay
We looked at a few Halong Bay cruises before getting to Cat Ba and found most prices to be $200 per person for two days and a night. Once we arrived on the island we easily booked a trip from our hotel for $70pp for two days and one night on a ship including food and kayaking. There seemed to be some pricier and nicer options, but our choice was the least expensive from Cat Ba that we saw. An 8am shuttle from our hotel got us to the pier and onto the water quickly, where we were joined by three others for our Halong Bay cruise.
The boat certainly wasn’t the newest and could have used a new layer of paint, but the cabins were nice. We were told at the office that it would be a private cabin, which actually turned out to be a shared one with two double beds for 4 people. We didn’t mind sharing the room, and only five people on the boat was a dream compared to some of the massive boats crammed full nearby.
We sailed for a few hours past beautiful karst rock formations toward Halong Bay were we would get to kayak around. We anchored in a beautiful bay surrounded by massive cliffs and narrow caves at their bases. We climbed into the kayaks that our boat had been towing and started paddling. After a few minutes we came across the first short, narrow cave we got to explore. The cave was pretty shallow and dark, but so short that it wasn’t a problem seeing where we were going. Coming out of the cave brought us into a large bay where a few more caves winked at us from a distance. Kayaking through one of these narrow caves lead us to a beautiful secluded lagoon with cliffs towering around us in every direction.
Beyond one large group of kayakers, we had the area to ourselves to explore. A big benefit of starting on Cat Ba Island is that you can visit certain sites earlier than the tours coming from Hanoi, and some sites that those other boats won’t go to at all. With so many people departing from Hanoi, Cat Ba makes a great alternative if you’d like to avoid kayak traffic jams!
In the afternoon our boat stopped so we could snorkel and swim in the beautiful water. A tiny beach sat under a huge cliff, which was a beautiful spot to swim to. The scenery was stunning everywhere we looked and we really enjoyed the first day of our boat cruise.
The boat stopped at a floating fishing village next, where we were invited to get off and check out the fishing operation. Nets hung into the water, where the fishermen seemed to farm huge fish that swam around in the confined space. Dogs ran around on the small floating fish farms, looking excited to see visitors.
The next morning our boat headed to Lan Han Bay, which has just as impressive karst rock formations as Halong Bay, but is closer to Cat Ba Island and less tourists tend to go there. Although the weather had taken a turn for the worse when we went, we were still excited to go kayaking again. Jumping into the kayaks, we paddled through the cave, which was longer and darker than the ones we had gone through the day before. The cave led us to a series of three lagoons, each surrounded on all sides by massive cliffs. It felt like we had the bay completely to ourselves, with the massive walls keeping any sound out beyond our paddles rippling through the water.
Our last stop after cruising through Lan Ha was Monkey Island. Monkey Island is a small island close to Cat Ba Island and gets its name from the tons of macaque monkeys that live there. While we were just stopping for a hike, there is an option to stay on the island as well. Once we reached the shore we were greeted by at least a hundred other visitors and a few monkeys strolling along the beach.
We set off on a narrow path to hike up to a lookout over the area. Although we were told that the hike is short and doable with flip flops, it ended up being quite a challenging climb up to the top, and the tons of other hikers didn’t make it any easier. The sandy path soon gave way to a climb up some sharp volcanic rocks and there simply wasn’t room for people going up and coming down at the same time. While the distance was short, it took us quite a while to reach the viewpoint, where we were rewarded with a nice view over monkey island and the surrounding bay. We didn’t hang out for long though, as we saw many more people making their way up.
When we reached the beach again, we had to wait a while to be brought back to our boat and David had to chase off some aggressive monkeys in the meantime. After changing boats and waiting for more people to come on board, it took us only about 30 minutes to get back to Cat Ba. Even though the weather wasn’t perfect, we really enjoyed our boat cruise along the beautiful Halong and Lan Han Bay, especially for only $70 pp.
For our last day on Cat Ba Island we had hoped to go deep water soloing, which is rock climbing on a karst cliff in the ocean without ropes. You fall into the water if you slip or want to end your climb. Unfortunately it ended up raining, so our tour was cancelled. Now we’re hoping for better weather at our next destination in South East Asia: Thailand. There, Railay near Phuket is another spot famous for Deepwater Soloing.